Dixie: Chronicles of a Field Bred English Springer Spaniel by Chip Schleider
Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part V | Part VI
It is just about this time each year when my thoughts turn, wistfully of course, to fall pheasant hunts. With a hand resting lightly on Dixie’s head, I telephone my two sons, my brother, his business partner, my son’s father-in-law, and Tony Roettger to see who will make the November pilgrimage to that mecca of all upland game bird states - South Dakota. Once our motley crew has finalized the list of participants, bringing Dixie and Arwen up to speed in advance of the hunting season becomes foremost in my mind.
"The question we face is what do we need to do to get ready for the hunting season?"
I have not been as active as I once was on the hunt test circuit, as the pressures of my day job having increased significantly over the years; therefore, I now have to do a little more training planning than in previous years. Both Dixie and Arwen are steady to flush and shot, and their training has entered the maintenance phase. Dixie, the grand dame of our household now pushing eight, has held her Master Hunter title for several years now. Arwen, an impish six year old, is as rock steady now as when I steadied her three years ago. Both dogs are seasoned at hunt deads, blind retrieves, double and triple marked land and water retrieves. They both have years of South Dakota hunting experience behind them. The question we face is what do we need to do to get ready for the hunting season?
One of the problems canines and humans both face as they age, is the need to get plenty of exercise. As I have gotten older and the pace of my work schedule as increased in proportion to my ever advancing age, there is less and less time to devote to exercise. Frequently, I am on business travel during the week, or in meetings that last the entire day, followed by a grueling business dinner. What to do? Dixie, Arwen, Door (my bride of many years), and I have hit upon a solution to this dilemma. We rise early each morning and walk roughly four miles with the dogs. Walking is one of the best exercises I know for getting into shape for the hunting season.
Canines and humans receive almost the same muscle tone and cardiovascular benefits from walking a mile as from running one with a concomitant decrease in injuries that require increasingly longer times (for both dog and man) to heal.
A typical South Dakota mid-season hunt may last anywhere from an hour to a full day in the field. There have been times when we shot our limits in less than half an hour. Other times we trudge through the fields for the entire day ending up a bird or two shy of that mythical three bird limit per hunter. Dixie and Arwen generally rotate hour periods during our hunts. This keeps them relatively rested between intense periods of working a mile long corn field on a three hunter front. The long walks that we take almost every morning has proved a super conditioner for the dogs. It has kept them slim and in good cardiovascular condition, but also keeps them relatively free of injuries. It has also enabled me to keep up with them in the field, and drop a few pounds here and there.
During the dog days of summer (no pun intended here), I frequently take both dogs to our local pond to cool off and work on retrieves. In July and August, the temperatures soar in Northern Virginia, and the high reading on the thermometer is matched by an equally high humidity index. Hard training in high temperatures is dangerous. However, if one has access to water (stream or pond), late summer training in a pond is an excellent way to tune up the dogs, while keeping them cool. Frequently, I will mix water retrieves and land retrieves (followed by a dip in the nearby pond to cool off). Dixie yelps when she gets near the water, and often jumps straight up in the air in anxious anticipation of a long swim to retrieve a dummy.
Arwen, habitually bored with land retrieves around the yard, adores the water, and vies with Dixie for a chance to make a water retrieve.
I vary the routine with both dogs to ensure that they never get bored. I always start with Dixie (stirs up Arwen’s competitive juices). Generally, I will give Dixie two or three double and triple marked retrieves, and then rest her. Arwen starts off with a forty yard single marked retrieve, but progresses rapidly to a couple of double marked retrieves. I then work Dixie on a long water blind (Arwen still lags in this area), and end up with both dogs "hupped" next to me while I make long throw with a single dummy. I alternate between Dixie and Arwen, and concentrate on reinforcing steadiness.
With and eye on the thermometer, late afternoon summer sessions are given over to light yard drills consisting of single and double marked retrieves, "hunt dead" exercises, and some blind retrieve work. Because of the heat, I keep these sessions short, and watch the dogs carefully. Dixie has a much lower tolerance for heat than Arwen. She has an enlarged heart, a congenital problem that we only recently discovered, that causes her to quickly fade in high heat conditions. Arwen, although more tolerant of high heat and humidity, still will fade quickly in extreme conditions.
A Diet of Birds
In late September, Dixie and Arwen receive a healthy dose of chukar partridges from our local game preserve. I generally organize a shoot with a group of friends as the weather turns cooler, and offer up Dixie’s and Arwen’s services as bird finders and fetchers. This "tune up" with real birds, I have found, is essential to ensure that both dogs have not lost their steadiness and continue to hunt in control. It gives them realistic training in a controlled environment, and whets their appetites for the real thing.
This simple regime is all that Dixie and Arwen have required over the years to prepare them for the wilds of South Dakota. However, they have many years of experience in the vast expanse of corn fields and incredible pheasant population for which this prairie state is known. I may be prejudiced, but I believe that conditions one finds South Dakota are some of the most demanding anywhere in the United States. The sheer size of the corn fields and the length of the corn rows, is a humbling sight. In her first couple of years as detailed in previous articles in this series, Dixie was more than a handful. Habitually, she would quarter once or twice, catch sight or smell of a runner, and plow pall mall down a corn row flushing birds until the end of the field. South Dakota has undone many a good pointer and setter.
In fact, folks from my neck of the woods often leave their finely honed pointing dog at home when they go out west. If you plan to go and take your dog with you, be prepared for this, and work to ensure that you have thoroughly trained him or her. Also be prepared for slip ups and pack an extra dose of patience. It takes quite a bit of experience and solid physical conditioning for a dog to hunt the Dakota wilds safely and in control.
Author’s note: this is the fifteenth in a series of articles that chronicle both the development of a talented young spaniel and the rights of passage of an inexperienced trainer and handler.
Part VII | Part VIII | Part IX | Part X | Part XI | Part XII | Part XIII | Part XIV
Chip Schleider is an avid amateur spaniel trainer and upland game hunter. He owns three dogs - one English springer spaniel and two English cocker spaniels. His English springer, Dixie, holds an AKC Master Hunter title, a UKC Started Hunting Retriever title and a NAHRA Started Retriever title. Chip is a marketing executive for a large aerospace company, and retired Army Lieutenant Colonel with a doctorate in international studies from the University of South Carolina. He lives with his wife Door and two of his gun dogs, Dixie and Arwen, in Great Falls, Virginia. His oldest son, Christian, is an Army Captain who has just returned from his second combat tour in Iraq. His youngest son, Alexander, attends the University of South Carolina.
Chip is the co-author with Tony Roettger of Urban Gun Dogs: Training Flushing Dogs for Home and Field - copies of which can be purchased through the Spaniel Journal Bookstore. In addition, their new book, A Field Guide to Retriever Drills, should be available through Wilderness Adventure Press in March 2008. He also writes frequently for journals catering to gun dog training. In addition, their new book, A Field Guide to Retriever Drills, was published in March 2008. He also writes frequently for journals catering to gun dog training.